Part of the FurKind series on Dog Behaviour and Mental Health
Dog Separation Anxiety
Part 1: Signs
How coronavirus quarantine may impact our canines
By Janina Vomund, Bioveterinary Science BSc (Hons)
Separation Anxiety is a form of an anxiety/panic mental disorder which can show up as negative behaviours in your dog when you go out.
The UK is a dog-loving country, with an estimated pet dog population of 9.9 million, meaning approximately 26% of adults in the UK have a dog. Until the end of 2019, only about 30% of the UK workforce worked from home. Because of this, many dogs were used to their owners being gone for lengthy periods each day. However, with the coronavirus pandemic forcing up to 50% of the UK workforce to spend their days at home, either working or on furlough, dogs have got more used to their owners’ constant company. This is likely to lead to an increase of separation anxiety in dogs when owners suddenly leave for their first full day of work. To help your dog through this traumatic experience, it is important to understand the basic signs of separation anxiety.
Signs of Separation Anxiety
Separation anxiety can range from mild, moderate, to severe.
Mild symptoms happen periodically while you are gone, right before you leave or when you return. This situation is usually easily managed at home. Symptoms may include increased vocalisations and mild destruction (often to the door you leave through).
Moderate symptoms will include mild symptoms but will be more constant and frenzied, with evidence of obvious escape attempts at the door, windows or floor (and may also be self-mutilating). The anxiety may still show for up to an hour after you return home.
Severe symptoms will include mild and moderate symptoms with extreme self-mutilation, anxiety for hours after you have returned, and possibly fear aggression before you leave or when you return.
Moderate and severe symptoms are more likely to require professional guidance.
To properly identify separation anxiety, it is important to observe these behaviours in context. Pay attention to when this type of behaviour happens because, in a case of separation anxiety, this will be before or when you leave, during your absence, or when you return. If any combination of the signs listed below occurs whether you are there or not, and/or the signs are accompanied by additional behavioural or physiological changes, then there may be another underlying problem. In this case, it is best to get professional guidance.
Excessive barking, howling, whimpering and growling can indicate that your dog is experiencing anxiety — and this is their way of communicating this to you. Obviously, they also express some of these behaviours in normal conditions too, when they are protective, playful or lonely, etc. So it may be helpful to ask your neighbours if they hear your dog making any of these noises while you are gone. This might be a clue that your dog is experiencing separation anxiety.
Although most dogs will express separation anxiety with frantic, high energy behaviour, dogs are individuals and their reactions will vary. Some may show low energy behaviours such as depression and avoidance. As with people, if your pet has experienced repetitive feelings of abandonment, they may shut down by losing interest in company, play, food, and/or outdoor activities. Pets who are stressed may also develop irregular sleeping patterns so they may appear lethargic.
Hyperactivity, however, is more common in anxious dogs so it is important to understand signs that can be misinterpreted as playful excitement. Dogs with separation anxiety might be clingy, wanting continuous support and reassurance. In this case, they may frantically pace, jump, or shiver when you leave them because they feel like they are losing their source of reassurance. They may also become destructive by scratching or chewing at the door, windows or floor in a frantic attempt to escape, maybe even to the point of bleeding in more serious cases.
Signs of Stress and Calming Signals:
Dogs will use calming behaviours when they are feeling uncomfortable and stressed. These subtle signs are an attempt to calm themselves and to cope with their environment. In cases of separation anxiety, these signs may be noticeable around the time you are preparing to leave, are gone, or are returning.
Clues may include continuous lip licking, even if they have not eaten recently, and scratching often followed by a ‘shake off’ which releases stress and loosens their muscles. These self-cleaning behaviours can become excessive, possibly leading to self-mutilation in the form of bald patches or sores where they obsessively lick and scratch.
Subtle signs may also be excessive salivation or continuous panting even if they have not been recently active or in a hot environment. They may also dramatically yawn repeatedly when they are uncomfortable but are not likely to be tired.
An unexpected sign of stress may also be sniffing! Of course, dogs naturally enjoy sniffing anyway, so it can be tricky to detect if their sniffing is a sign of stress, something anxious dogs may do to help themselves feel calmer. Tell-tail signs could be if your dog frantically sniffs after you leave, trying to find you or a way out. Avoiding eye contact and turning their head away can also tell you that your pet is anxious or fearful. And if this turning away is immediately followed by sniffing, this can be interpreted as a response to stress.
You might also be able to notice facial expressions, such as pinned back ears or tense muscles such a furrowed brow and tightly closed lips. Being familiar with your dog’s expression when they are relaxed will help you recognise a changed expression if they are anxious. One key facial expression to look out for is whale eyes — when the whites of their eyes are visible when they look sideways. This heavily suggests anxiety and fear.
Cowering and tail tucking are common signs that suggest extreme fear for what has or is about to happen, and they may even run away or hide when you leave. Dogs with separation anxiety feel insecure and fearful and may also show these signs.
On occasions, extreme fear from separation anxiety may develop into mouthing. This can range from nibbling to biting and may occur either when you leave the house or when you return. It is a form of fear aggression that is often misunderstood. Dogs naturally use these behaviours as a warning, to resolve conflict and for defence, but in some cases, they may do the same to show that they are afraid of losing their precious sources of safety, including you!
Dogs remember routines within their household so if there are any dramatic changes to their normal routine, they can become thrown off and confused, leading to a loss of toilet training. Fear can have similar results because, as they become becomes tense, it makes it harder for them to control their bodily functions. Stressed dogs may also feel the need to do urine marking in the home to maintain a sense of familiarity and security to ease their anxiety.
Refusal to eat may occur while you are gone because dogs are basically social creatures and usually prefer to eat with the pack. Also, when they are extremely stressed or anxious, they may lose their appetite, so if you notice this while you are gone, it may be a sign of separation anxiety. Dogs can also literally become ‘worried sick’ when their anxiety builds up, causing nausea and possibly vomiting.
Overall, separation anxiety cases in dogs have the potential to spike as people begin to return to work after weeks of staying home with their beloved pet. Mental health conditions are very real for dogs and should be taken seriously whether they are mild, moderate or severe. If you learn to notice subtle signs as well as the more obvious ones, your dog is much more likely to receive the response and help they need.
This is a general overview of anxiety symptoms which can occur from separation anxiety, but dogs are not likely to experience all of these signs. All dogs are different so whether or not, or why, these signs occur will vary from dog to dog. It is important to know that some of these signs are also signs for other underlying conditions that require a clinical diagnosis and treatment from a professional. If in doubt, consult a behaviourist and/or vet – only they can clinically diagnose separation anxiety or any other behavioural and physiological conditions that may be confused with, or occur in addition to, separation anxiety.
Part 2 will cover prevention and treatments – Sign Up here for a reminder
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